When the first steps taken towards standardization in 2000 were made, the prototype projectors in use were 1280 x 1024 in resolution. Cinematographers wanted color and contrast that could compete with film, and exhibitors wanted a format having billboard numbers greater than those of HDTV. Science said that 2K resolution would be observable from the center of the auditorium, and 4K would be visible closer up, so these seemed like reasonable numbers to pursue. Reportedly, only one member of DCI had the foresight to push for a frame rate higher than the traditional 24fps used in standard 35mm film. So 48fps 2K was included in the specification, as the decoder bit rate required to support it would fit within that which was to be allowed for 4K. Ironically, the 48fps capability required by DCI has so far only been used to support the stereoscopic images of 24fps 3-D. Audiences have yet to be entertained with the higher frame rate capability of 2-D digital projection.
Eleven years after the standardization effort began, digital cameras have evolved to the satisfaction of cinematographers. Frame rates higher than 24 fps have long been experimented with by filmmakers, but only productions targeted for special venue could justify the higher cost of film required in both capture and distribution. It is the introduction of digital cameras that now make it practical to shoot with high frame rates, as the only additional cost is in the hard drives required to store and distribute the picture. As a result, Peter Jackson decided to shoot The Hobbit in stereoscopic 48 fps (96 fps total), and Jim Cameron demonstrated stereoscopic 60fps (120 fps total) at CinemaCon in March of this year. The good news is that cinema is evolving in ways that will strongly differentiate it from direct-to-consumer forms of entertainment. The bad news is that exhibitors are now confused and worried that the equipment they buy today will soon be obsolete.
When Jim Cameron introduced his demonstration at CinemaCon, he coyly said “this could crash.” Fortunately, it didn’t. But according to those involved in the setup, that was the one performance that didn’t crash. The point being that the level of technology demonstrated that day by Mr. Cameron was delicate. The equipment is not off-the-shelf for exhibitors to buy, contrary to the claims of some technology providers. Of prime note is that the proper bit rate for decoding stereoscopic 60 fps is yet to be decided. DCI requires manufacturers to decode images at up to 250 Mbits per second. This figure was designed to accommodate 2K 48 fps, as well as 4K 24 fps. While the makers of DLP projectors will gladly say they can support 120 fps today, there is more to this picture. Almost universally, manufacturers of media blocks will tell you that they can decode at a rate up to 500 Mbps, but they will stop short of saying that this is enough for 60 fps 3-D.
There is wisdom in stopping short. The 250 Mbps limitation of DCI was selected after “golden eyes” in the industry viewed images so decoded. Even then, there were some in the industry that did not agree that this number was sufficient for 4K. But whether one agreed or not, the important point was that the limitation was not forced on the industry by manufacturers. It takes a higher authority to set such limits, and that authority starts with directors and cinematographers.
The difficulty in moving forward with higher frame rates is that the authority for higher bit rates is unlikely to be DCI. If DCI were to embrace higher frame rates in its specification, it would be the sales figures for digital projectors that would crash. Just as dangerous, if the bit rate is decided by one filmmaker and not by an accepted authority, early adopters will be at risk. Equipment purchased for the task will likely become obsolete, just as early adopters of 1280 x 1024 projectors watched their brave investments become boat anchors.
The difference in the industry today from where it was eleven years ago is scale. A marketplace of 47,000 digital projectors, and growing, is far different from the marketplace a decade ago where only hundreds of digital projectors existed. When the investment level is relatively small, it’s much easier to be disruptive without creating long-term damage. As such, DCI was able to set the 2K/4K standard without turning the industry upside down. But that won’t be the case with high frame rate cinema. The risk for filmmakers is that if too low a bit rate proliferates, there will be less incentive to produce high quality high frame rate movies.
It’s not widely known in the industry that it was Peter Jackson who first moved down the 3-D path when shooting King Kong, well in advance of Disney’s decision to release Chicken Little in 3-D. Three-quarters of the converted movie still sits in the can, after the conversion budget ran out. It was Mr. Jackson who first envisioned the 2005 3-D demonstration at ShoWest. Heroically, it is Mr. Jackson again who will push the industry in its first experiment with higher frame rates. It’s probably a good bet, as 48 fps 3-D is only double that of today’s 24 fps 3-D, and it appears that new media blocks can handle this. Fortunately, for those who own DLP projectors, it is only the media block and associated server and storage that is at risk. But it won’t be long before Mr. Cameron tempts the industry with 60 fps 3-D, and so it is Mr. Cameron who is in the best position to investigate if the equipment in the field will do what it needs to do. It is worth doing right, as the industry will benefit with Mr. Cameron’s high frame rates, just as it will benefit from his movie making.